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U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, commander of the Maryland Army National Guard (right) and Bishop Angel Nunez, senior pastor of the Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore, discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and the outreach efforts performed by his community to minimize the spread, Jan. 24, 2022, in Baltimore, Md.

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, commander of the Maryland Army National Guard (right) and Bishop Angel Nunez, senior pastor of the Bilingual Christian Church of Baltimore, discuss the impacts of COVID-19 and the outreach efforts performed by his community to minimize the spread, Jan. 24, 2022, in Baltimore, Md. (Elise Moore/U.S. Army National Guard)

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(Tribune News Service) — Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead is commander of the Maryland Army National Guard and deputy commanding general of reserves affairs at the U.S. Army War College. A decorated military officer, Birckhead was commander of the Task Force Capitol Grounds, where she led 14,000 troops from the Mid-Atlantic region deployed to secure the Nation's Capitol for the 59th presidential inauguration in January 2021.

Gov. Hogan appointed Birckhead to lead Maryland's COVID-19 Vaccine Equity Task Force in February 2021, tasking her with coordinating the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in communities with under-served and vulnerable populations. In her civilian life, Birckhead serves as a senior advisor in the Bureau of Trust Funds Administration at the Department of the Interior.

During CHOSEN Community Development Corp.'s second annual Women's History Month Recognition Program last week in Aberdeen, Birckhead spoke on the theme of providing healing and promoting hope. Her mother, Fannie Birckhead, who died a month ago, was her example of this, she said. Fannie was a larger-than-life figure to her family who instilled her hope and healing qualities in her children, Birckhead said.

The Aegis spoke with Birckhead after the event to discuss women in the military, her experience leading the Maryland Army National Guard's all-female command team, her efforts in combating COVID-19 on the home front, and what's next for her.

Q: What was your experience as a woman coming up in the military?

A: As you know, the military is primarily male focused in most of history. As I commented before [during the CHOSEN program], I talked about Harriet Tubman being a soldier. I actually refer to her as general. If you think about all that time until now, it's upward of 200 years.

It's only recently that women in the military have come to the forefront, and [now] we have women in all ranks. It was so difficult to enter into infantry, for instance. Now, we have women in the infantry.

Times have changed, and we are more inclusive. The one good thing about the organization, it realizes it has to change, and it changes itself.

Q: What was your biggest challenge?

A: To get to the highest ranks in the military, you have to command at every level. Command is the epitome of the job you want to do when you are captain or lieutenant. You want to move up the ranks.

Proving yourself as a leader and that you can lead soldiers is probably the hardest thing. To implement plans and analyze and do that in an environment where you’re leading hundreds of people many times is the most difficult thing.

As I reflect on women getting into infantry, we are looked at like, can we do that job. Is she able to lead men? Or is she able to tell men what to do? The only way to overcome that bias is to be successful at it.

Q: How much pressure was it to be the first all-female command team and be successful?

A: It was pressure to be successful, but it was also an understanding that to get there we were already successful. So this is just another stepping-stone to demonstrate to others what women can do. We were confident in ourselves that we did all the jobs we needed to do.

We have been successful in the jobs we need to do. We can lead soldiers. We can lead the general public. We have done all those things.

We just have to make a point to be out there and make ourselves visible, so anyone who looks like us who wants to aspire to be like us can do it.

Q: What was the experience like having all females around you as a team?

A: It's funny that in this case we are all females, and we are all mothers. It came out in some of our personalities. But, being able to tell mom stories about juggling this job and juggling our job as mom.

I think that knowing and understanding when I say I have to do something is automatic. I think that this should be pertinent for people to watch. It should be positive until we are at a time where we don't have to make it such a big deal. We have to continue to tell the story.

Q: What's it like being a part of the vaccination task force? How difficult has it been to work with the community and the government?

A: On the day to day, it is not difficult because the team is phenomenal. We have professionals who can plan, organize and execute. If we could clear out all the other distractors and get into the community to have these one on one conversations, we can be really successful at our job.

Having the governor clear the way and say this equity task force has 100% support. There is a reason why we have an equity task force because we need to get into under-served communities. This is my team that is doing that. Move out the way and let them do their job.

When you have that kind of support, it's easier to be successful.

Q: What would your advice be for young women trying to go into the military or make something out of themselves?

A: I am consistent with this. You have to have a plan and a change of plan because things do not go in a straight line. You can be going along and things are fine like I was, then my mom gets killed. That was something I was not planning on happening in my life and it certainly has changed my plan. Then, I had to rethink the next steps.

So have a plan and a change of plan. Also, seek out mentors to help you with this plan. Speaking of healing and hope, you can't do it by yourself. Who are the people you lean on when you need healing and hope? You have to have that.

Q: What are the next steps of your plan?

A: The next step to my plan is to ensure my daughter gets through high school. She is a senior in high school, so we've got to graduate and get her to college in September. That's foremost in my mind.

My mom was her primary caregiver, and they were really close. This is a big change for her, so I want to make sure she is in a good place mentally. That's my number one right now.

(c)2022 The Aegis (Bel Air, Md.)

Visit The Aegis (Bel Air, Md.) at www.baltimoresun.com/explore/harford/publications/the-aegis

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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